Wednesday, January 19, 2005

Keep rolling that rock

Remember Sisyphus from Greek mythology? For his sins, the man was condemned to an eternity of pushing a boulder up a mountain. Yes, an eternity. Because every time he gets to the top, the myth tells us, that pesky old rock rolls down again and Sisyphus has to trudge down after it and start over.

Imagine laboring like that day after day, year after year, and never accomplishing anything.

Some of you don't have to imagine. You believe you're doing it.

Yes, I'm talking about you writers who are bleeding, sweating, and crying over manuscripts before sending them off to coldhearted editors who just keep drop-kicking them right back to you.

As I mentioned the other day, I get a lot of mail from aspiring authors. Some of you know that I sold -- without revisions and with only a very light edit -- the first manuscript I ever completed. That's very rare, and I have no explanation for it except to say I must have a teensy bit of talent and that I worked really hard. And that I sent the right story to the right place at the right time and by God's grace, it got published.

But for the record, my second, third, and fourth manuscripts were rejected. I have learned that rejection is a fact of life for all of us, even published writers. So before we go on, I feel compelled to ask: Are you certain you want to do this?

Okay, then. Let's get back to Sisyphus. Let's imagine for a moment that his story is true and that he's still out there somewhere, rolling that rock uphill. Do you think he has learned anything from his labors?

I bet he has. I bet he's gotten pretty good at rock-rolling. By now he must know the shallowest path to the summit and the most efficient way to push that boulder. And his arms and chest must rival that of California's governor. But while Sisyphus has no hope of ever succeeding in getting that boulder to the top and keeping it there, you and I do. So please stop whining about all your hard work amounting to nothing simply because your manuscript was rejected.

You are not wasting your time. Writing is a lot like playing the violin. You want to do it well? Fine, then practice. Write a story and send it out. Then do it again. And again. And don't worry about using up all your best ideas on stories that don't sell. The well of your imagination is a lot deeper than you think. And it's a magic well. As soon as you draw from it, it fills up again.

If you don't enjoy the process of writing, you may as well quit right now because this is a business that will crush all but the sturdiest, stubbornest hearts. But here's my message to those of you who can't quit:

If you write on a regular basis and pour your heart and soul into it, you will make progress. Oh, I can't promise you eventual publication any more than your violin teacher can assure you that with enough practice, you'll make it to Carnegie Hall. But if you work hard and don't quit, you'll keep moving closer to your goal. And one day, you might actually reach it.

If you just keep rolling that rock.

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